Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.11.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.11.13

Dunstan Lowe, Monsters and Monstrosity in Augustan Poetry.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2015.  Pp. 274.  ISBN 9780472119516.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Christina Franzen, Marshall University (


Lowe examines the ways in which Vergil and Ovid primarily deploy the figure of the partially human monster to reveal early imperial attitudes toward creativity, aesthetics, intellectualism, gender, and, to a lesser extent, Roman identity. Lowe excludes monsters that do not have human parts, such as Cerberus or Charybdis, and states, at the outset of his work, that the monsters he does examine “represent established norms in conflict with new thinking” (1). Monster theory and interdisciplinary monster studies, while a fairly established field outside of the Classics, is becoming more and more popular in our field.1 Lowe, as he states in chapter one, capitalizes on this trend, referring to Jeffrey Cohen’s adage from his collection of essays, Monster Theory: Reading Culture, adopted from Lévi-Strauss, that monsters are “good to think with”.

Chapter one, “Monster Theory,” lays out the theoretical framework for the book, and it is in this chapter that Lowe presents his most innovative thesis, that “in some circumstances poets appropriated monsters to represent their own creativity or aesthetic choices” (14). He further explains that monstrous bodies, as new or hybrid forms, can symbolize the overwrought or decadent, on the one hand, or the innovative, fertile, and creative, on the other. Lowe argues that monsters, while inherently political, can also represent the poetic, whether the monster symbolizes degeneration or transcendency. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of monstrosity. At their root, as Lowe points out, monsters, monstra to the Romans, were both warnings and messages from the gods, ultimately impossible to interpret. Toward the end of the chapter, Lowe stakes out several terms he will be accessing; “deformed,” “shapeless,” “uncanny,” “grotesque,” and “sublime,” he claims, are “attempts to represent the unrepresentable” (40). He concludes the chapter with analyses of Vergil’s Fama and Ovid’s Janus, two monstrous figures to which he gives scant attention and which could serve as a more firm foundation for his work as a whole if dealt with more thoroughly.

Chapter two, “Real Monsters,” examines how abnormal and deformed bodies permeated most aspects of Roman life. It is unclear how this topic fits in with Lowe’s overarching themes of poetic and creative novelty and gender, and this chapter would make more sense as a subsection of the introduction, because the analysis of monstrosity here post-dates Augustan poetry and is therefore anachronistic. Lowe does mention that the Augustan period was pivotal for how monsters were collected and catalogued, but then abandons Augustan or even late-Republican descriptions of “real” monsters and focuses on later imperial representations. For example, Lowe devotes a section to Pliny’s description of primates as monstrous supernatural beings in his Naturalis Historia, and I am not sure to what end (51-2). He suggests that mythological monsters inform “real” monsters and the two “enable” one another, but I am left with a feeling that this chapter is completely out of place. Lowe discusses fertility and over-fertility, which could be a foundation for his discussions of femininity and monstrosity in chapters five and six, but he leaves his analysis hanging, not linking it to any larger thematic aspects of his book. When he returns to Augustus at the end of the chapter, he writes that they are evidence of vast socio-political upheaval in the late Republic and beyond.

Chapter three, “Feminine Exteriors,” begins Lowe’s exploration of gender and monstrosity, focusing specifically on how misogyny colors depictions of female monsters. He argues that “female monsters become threat and victim combined, inviting a blend of empathy and voyeurism” (72), which both enthralls and repulses a male audience. Lowe begins his analysis with Scylla, who perfectly embodies the lure and repugnance Lowe describes as characteristic of female monstrosity. Next, Lowe treats the Sirens, who, he claims, are transformed or “maidenized” in a similar fashion to Scylla. While not described physically at all in Homer, in later antiquity they come to be depicted as hybrid bird-women creatures and symbolize “dangerous self-indulgence” (93), hinting at the idea that women are a kind of “addictive pleasure” (94) that must be contained. Finally, Lowe examines Medusa in relation to how she is both repulsive and attractive, not with regard to her body but to her face, and how she undergoes a “maidenization” like that of the other monsters in this chapter.

In chapter four, “Feminine Interiors,” Lowe examines the Harpies and the Furies, who embody an especially pernicious and corrupt form of femininity. He frames his discussion of the Harpies with Bakhtin’s theories of the grotesque and carnivalesque. Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter is the section in which Lowe discusses the Harpies’ “leaking bodies” (119) and argues that such leaking reveals a particularly feminine type of immorality. He goes on to say that “these bestial, pollutant hybrids betoken various negative qualities attributed to women, including shamelessness and lust” (124). While his argument is compelling that the Harpies leak liquid excrement from their mouths as well as menstrual blood that drips onto food (127-135), thus polluting everything they eat in a scatalogically and peculiarly feminine manner, I find that his evidence for such an argument is lacking. He says that he has found no other source that implies an ingestion of either feces or menstrual blood, but it would do Lowe well to look at ancient Tantric Yogic texts. Initiates into various goddess cults would ingest menstrual blood and semen so that they become “pregnant” with the goddesses’ offspring.2 Finally, Lowe dismisses the Harpies entirely when he calls them “ex-employees of the gods” and “opportunistic scavengers,” (141), and, according to the author, the Furies function in a similar manner.

Chapter five, “Beast Men,” looks at the Centaurs and the Minotaur, and argues that they are representations of the “sublime,” which, in this case, means a figure larger than life that belongs to the epic past, one that can move mountains, boulders, and trees. Lowe spends the majority of the chapter on the Centaurs and compares the literary representations of the wars in which they engage to the Gigantomachy. Toward the end of the chapter, Lowe gives the Minotaur some attention, returning to his thesis that monsters symbolize creativity in poetry, with the Minotaur providing the vehicle for the comparison. Even the labryrinth itself, Lowe argues, is an example of “art without limits” (183), and he engages in a close-reading of an Ovidian passage in which the Minotaur figures prominently to show the creativity and ingenuity monstrosity seems to represent. In the end, then, the Centaurs and the Minotaur are quite different. While the Centaurs represent the sublime, big poetry out of control, the Minotaur, to Ovid at least, represents poetic invention and creativity.

In his final chapter, “Hyperbolic Monsters,” Lowe states at the outset that the “biggest monsters … lurked in the depths of the earth and sea, relics of a primitive past when they once attacked Olympus” (189). He continues: “Augustan poets … not only use Gigantomachic imagery to represent epic but also exploit its individual hyperbolic tropes: monstrous size, mountain-throwing, rock-lifting, and similar motifs” (189-90). Lowe looks at Gigantomachy and other massive monsters in Augustan epic as hinting at sublimity but ultimately pointing to the inability of Roman epic to contain such sublimity, size, and distortions usually depicted in combat. Lowe does suggest, though, that poets use hyperbolic monsters to create a world of generic conflict, one in which epic collides with the pastoral, a hybrid situation, and one that resembles monstrosity in and of itself.

Overall, Lowe has provided wide ranging case studies that demonstrate monsters can be deployed by poets both positively, in the case of poetic innovation, and negatively, in the case of portraying female characters in a misogynistic manner as well as poetic decadence. Monstrosity’s hybrid nature lends itself to a wide array of interpretations, and therein lies its utility: it becomes a cipher to its interpreters and reflects certain fears and expectations of both the author and the male audience. While Lowe’s extensive study is certainly useful and enlightening on many levels, the book seems to lack focus, which speaks to larger problems of organization. It seems that this study perhaps began as a dissertation and was submitted as a manuscript with few revisions. Nonetheless, with monstrosity still a burgeoning field in Classics, Lowe’s study is a valuable addition.


1.   See, for example, Halberstam, J. (1995). Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press Books; Pare, A. (1995) On Monsters and Marvels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2.   See, for example, White, D. (2003). Kiss of the Yoginī : "Tantric sex" in its South Asian Contexts. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

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